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Bill Gates on AI: “China is No. 2”

Kai-Fu LEE of Sinovation Ventures thinks China may become the world's AI superpower.

Bill Gates on AI: “China is No. 2”
| Image credit to 123rf.com.cn.

People today still diverge on where China’s AI is heading, all with good reasons. How about Microsoft founder Bill Gates? What does he think of the current AI race?

He gave his answer in a recent interview with Fareed Zakaria from CNN.

And his view can be loosely summed up as this: China may be vigorously funding AI and making strides in the field, but instead of outracing the U.S., China will be No. 2.

How did he come to such a conclusion?

AI has the potential to create 10 Microsofts

The Microsoft founder has long been a believer in the potential of AI, going so far once as to comment publicly that “If you invent a breakthrough in artificial intelligence . . . that is worth 10 Microsofts.”

In the U.S., many have tended to think that the company that brings such a breakthrough would end up in their country.

And to reporter Fareed Zakaria’s question whether China, which has started a massively funded effort to dominate AI and is gaining strong momentum, will win the race, Bill Gates’ answer was negative.

China won’t shake the U.S.’ status as the leader in AI

Bill Gates on AI: “China is No. 2”
Image credit to QbitAI.

To begin with, he thinks the U.S. retains a notable first-mover advantage.

U.S. tech companies like Microsoft, Google and Facebook remain in the lead. So does the part of the country’s academia whose work is closely associated with the research and development of core technologies.

Bill Gates acknowledged the role the Chinese government plays in advancing China’s AI industry, but he also noted that, in addition to making industries more efficient, AI technologies are used by the military too, and that “the U.S., historically, has had its military more connected to new technological breakthroughs than any other country.”

He, therefore, concluded that China would probably not be able to outrace the U.S. in AI development.

It seems that Bill Gates doesn’t hope to see China rise to the top either, because that would “raise a lot of questions”. For example, it might reshape the job market.

As far as he is concerned, China is No. 2 in the AI race, second only to the U.S.

Kai-Fu LEE thinks otherwise

Bill Gates on AI: “China is No. 2”
Image credit to QbitAI.

But not everyone is on Bill Gates’ side. Kai-Fu LEE, for example, thinks China does have the potential to dominate the global AI industry.

At a recent summit organized by The New York Times, Kai-Fu LEE expounded his views to U.S. audience, which, perhaps to his own surprise, pitted him against Bill Gates on the issue of AI.

His main points are:

  • First, with AI promoted as a national strategy and emphasis given to AI development from top to bottom, China has an advantage in terms of policy support and execution.
  • Second, China sits on massive data, has a large population and boasts a huge market; AI development in China is fuelled by smart devices and data collection; China is also investing in AI more than the U.S. does.
  • Third, China has plenty of talents, who have a reputation for hard work and dedication to their jobs. To achieve their targets, Chinese employees are willing to work “996” – 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., six days a week, which is hardly possible for U.S. companies or workers.

Based on these, Kai-Fu LEE thinks it’s not impossible for China to overtake the U.S. and emerge as the world’s AI superpower.

Bill Gates on AI: “China is No. 2”
Image credit to QbitAI.

His view is not without factual support.

In certain vertical areas, China has seen far more technological breakthroughs than the U.S. For example, in the field of face recognition, Chinese firms like Megvii Technology (旷视) and SenseTime (商汤) have outperformed U.S. giants in tech competitions as well as in terms of the number of papers published.

With respect to computing power, Chinese supercomputers Sunway TaihuLight and Tianhe-2 continue to be ranked as the two most powerful supercomputers in the world.

Moreover, according to a latest report by CB Insights, AI startups around the world received a total of $12.5 billion in financing throughout 2017, of which 48% went to Chinese companies and 38% to the U.S., marking the first time that Chinese AI startups raised more than their U.S. counterparts.

We are seeing more AI elements in state events as well, such as the recent Beijing eight-minute show at the closing ceremony of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

The thing is, people today still diverge on where China’s AI is heading, and they all have good reasons.

Bill Gates may be right, but Kai-Fu LEE’s confidence in China’s AI strength seems well founded too.

This article was written by LI Gen and first published on the tech self-media QbitAI(量子位). It was translated and published by KrASIA with authorization.

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